Can Africa’s problems be solved with digital?

24 Jan 2018 |Written by Emily Redmond

The launch today of DFID’s Digital Strategy, “Doing development in a digital world”, has given me the chance to reflect on the work we’ve been doing in Kenya over the past year, and what we’ve learnt.


The DFID strategy states that 'Over 4 billion people around the world lack access to the internet, and risk being left behind in a digital world' - and this is exactly what we are trying to combat through our project in Kenya. We welcome this bold ambition from DFID to ensure the benefits of digital technology are available to all.

The pilot we're running, in partnership with the Kenya National Library Service (knls), aims to test how digital inclusion models and resources can be translated for use in other countries. We're hoping we can share some of the lessons we've learnt in delivering digital inclusion in the UK with a country that has both many different challenges from ours, but also many similarities.

We've come across some major challenges along the way. Kenya is a big country, and there are huge differences in provision and infrastructure between big cities like Nairobi, and some of the more rural areas we are working - like Gilgil and Kangema.

Poverty is also a huge concern, which was apparent when we visited Gilgil. With the typical wage less than $1 a day, sometimes people didn't have enough money to eat. Facing these more pressing challenges each day means that digital skills seems very low down the agenda.

On top of this, models we often rely on in the UK - such as trusted people acting as 'Digital Champions' to upskill others - don't always work as frontline staff themselves are lacking in even the most basic digital skills.

However, we are beginning to overcome these challenges. Working with local partners like knls is vital in understanding local complexities - particularly in a country as diverse as Kenya. We've learnt that technology can be of huge benefit in many ways - like keeping in touch with libraries via Whatsapp to overcome geography issues. We're also responding to need and sharing relevant training and learning content in monthly newsletters and delivering webinars with the librarians so they can share what works with each other. We've also 'buddied' libraries in Kenya up with those in the UK.

One thing I have learnt along the way is to leave any preconceptions behind, and to be open to adapting and learning quickly.

It's great to see this reflected in DFID's strategy through the Principles for Digital Development, which are:

  • Design with the User
  • Understand the Existing Ecosystem
  • Design for Scale
  • Build for Sustainability
  • Be Data Driven
  • Use Open Standards, Open Data, Open Source, and Open Innovation
  • Reuse and Improve
  • Address Privacy and Security
  • Be Collaborative

These are all principles we have tried to remain true to through our work, and have helped us to ensure we are developing services and approaches for users, that work in a local context, and can both scale and be sustainable in the future.

We look forward to continuing to work with DFID as we continue our work in Kenya, and further afield, and in ensuring DFID, and the UK, can be seen as a global leader in using digital solutions in development programmes.

In March, we are heading back to Kenya to meet with knls again, and visit the libraries to see how they're getting on. We'll also be meeting some of the people using the libraries, to get feedback for the future. Do keep an eye out for updates on our Tumblr page, and on social media, to see more of our trip.

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Digital Life: Kenya